Omicron surge undermines care for other health problems – Santa Monica Daily Press

BEN FINLEY and KATE BRUMBACK / Associated Press

Roger Strukhoff was being treated for intestinal bleeding at a hospital outside Chicago this month when he suffered a mild heart attack.

Normally, the 67-year-old would have been transferred to the intensive care unit. But Strukhoff said it was overrun by COVID-19 patients and staff had to wheel a heart monitor into his room instead and quickly administer nitroglycerin and morphine.

“A doctor I know pretty well said, ‘Roger, we need to improvise right here,'” said Strukhoff, who lives in DeKalb, Illinois.

This winter’s Omicron surge has not only swamped US hospitals with a record number of patients with COVID-19, it has also caused scary moments and major headaches for people trying to get treatment for other diseases.

Less urgent procedures have been shelved across the country, such as cochlear implant surgeries and steroid injections for rheumatoid arthritis. And people with all sorts of medical conditions have had to wait in emergency rooms for hours longer than usual.

Mat Gleason said he took his 92-year-old father, Eugene Gleason, to a Los Angeles-area emergency room last week for a transfusion to treat a blood disorder. It should have taken about seven to 10 hours, Gleason said, but his father was there for 48 hours.

He said his father called him after 10 hours and asked for a blanket.

“He later said to me, ‘I thought they forgot about me,'” said Gleason, 57, who works as an art critic. “Yet he wasn’t the only person in this room. There were dozens of people there.” But Gleason added, “I’m not angry with the hospital at all. You did a great job.”

An average of nearly 144,000 people with COVID-19 were in hospitals in the United States as of Tuesday, the highest on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitals in some states like New York and Connecticut that experienced early Omicron surges are beginning to see a reduction in patient burdens, but many other places are overwhelmed.

Hospitals say COVID-19 patients are not as ill as those during the last surge. And many of them are admitted for reasons other than COVID-19 and only incidentally tested positive for the virus.

Rick Pollack, CEO and president of the American Hospital Association, said the surge has had a far-reaching impact on the availability of care for people with non-COVID-19 health conditions. He said a number of factors are at play: More people are in the hospital, and large numbers of healthcare workers are traveling with COVID-19, compounding staff shortages that existed well before the pandemic.

As of Wednesday, about 23 percent of hospitals across the country were reporting critical staff shortages, Pollack said.

Many people are also unable or unwilling to seek treatment for symptoms that don’t seem like emergencies, he said. Pollack said this has led to delays in diagnosing conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure, which get worse the longer they go untreated.

dr Claudia Fegan, Chicago’s Cook County Health chief medical officer, said some people, particularly elderly patients, have avoided checkups and other routine treatments during the pandemic for fear of COVID-19.

As a result, “the patients we’re seeing now are a lot sicker,” she said, citing cases of advanced heart failure and cancer that may have been diagnosed earlier.

Mike Bawden, a 59-year-old marketing consultant with a history of blood clots in the lungs, said he couldn’t get an appointment with his doctor in Davenport, Iowa, because his cough symptoms were too similar to those of COVID-19. The doctor’s office was concerned about the spread of the virus to others.

After almost two weeks, Bawden went to an outpatient clinic, which sent him to the emergency room at Genesis Medical Center-East in Davenport. He said he waited nearly six hours in a crowded emergency room before he was seen. A scan showed what he suspected was clots in his lungs and he was prescribed blood thinners.

If not for the surge, Bawden said he would have gotten a scan at a doctor’s office much sooner.

“It’s always so easy to walk into the ER for the quarterback on Monday mornings, but everyone has been really nice — even the other patients,” Bawden said. “I think it’s important for people to realize that nobody’s the bad guy.”

Craig Cooper, a Genesis spokesperson, declined to comment on individual cases. But he said in an email: “We are not exempt from the challenges facing medical centers across the United States due to the significant impact of COVID. We urge individuals to get vaccinated.”

Strukhoff, who is a tech startup researcher, said he arrived at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb because he suspected it was internal bleeding.

He was diagnosed and given a bed in the ER. He waited there for six hours, feeling dizzy, before being wheeled to his own room through corridors filled with people on stretchers.

“I wasn’t in distress at the time,” Strukhoff said. “I was afraid of clogging up work in the ER and taking up space for other people.”

Christopher King, a spokesman for Northwestern Medicine, declined to comment on Strukhoff’s treatment due to privacy concerns. However, he confirmed that waiting times were higher than normal across the hospital system, as they can be found across the country.

Strukhoff said when he got his own hospital room, a colonoscopy showed the bleeding. Doctors treated it by cauterizing a vein. He then suffered the heart attack while recovering. He said it took five hours to get to the intensive care unit.

“It wasn’t something they were set up to do, but they did it,” Strukhoff said of the doctors and nurses who rose to the challenge. “These people are heroes.”

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